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Film Mon Aug 11 2014

A Master Builder : A Claustrophobic Stew of Lust, Ambition, Ego and Envy

Photo courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center.

Sometimes it's best to ignore the source of an adaptation and let the new work stand on its own. That works well with this excellent new adaptation of the 1893 Henrik Ibsen play converted to film in modern dress, as A Master Builder by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The two-hour film, currently showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center with an outstanding cast of seven, immerses us in a story of lust, ambition, ego and envy.

The film closely follows Ibsen's original story -- with one important exception. We meet master builder Halvard Solness as an aging and sick man, tended by nurses and resting in a hospital bed in his office. (Ibsen describes him in the original as "a man no longer young, but healthy and vigorous.") This illness reframes the story of the architect with the monstrous ego and ambition and provides a dreamlike and ambiguous ending.

Director Jonathon Demme has created a film that to my mind is more claustrophobic than a single-setting play. Demme uses extreme closeups of his garrulous characters as well as a small number of tight physical spaces.

Shawn plays Solness, an architect who delights in suppressing the ambitions of those around him. In years past, he appropriated the architectural practice of Knut Brovik (Gregory), who is now near death. He and his son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) work for Solness, who refuses to let Ragnar perform anything more than menial duties. Solness also is having an affair with Ragnar's fiancée, Kaya (Emily McDonnell), who works as his bookkeeper. Solness' wife, Aline (an emotionally stirring performance by Julie Hagerty), mourns her past, professes her obligations to duty, and puts up with Solness' infidelities.

Into this already stressful domestic milieu strides Hilde (Chicago actor Lisa Joyce), a 22-year-old woman out of Solness' past. She has come to him so that he can make good on his promise to her of 10 years ago to "make her a princess and buy her a kingdom." He remembers that they met in her hometown during the completion ceremonies for one of his buildings. Their dialogue carries strong implications of pedophilia. Hilde is a combination of seductive temptress, avenging angel and voice of reason. Joyce gives a stunning performance, switching moods with equanimity and an effervescent, almost maniacal, laugh.

Shawn's performance as the despotic Solness is powerful, despite his round face, short, unsvelte body and velour tracksuit. He convinces us that he's a man of charisma and sex appeal. Of course, power is also an aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger famously said.

The film is full of metaphors, signified by the fact that its original title was to be Fear of Falling: Solness' acrophobia, high towers, castles in the sky and the builder's tradition of hanging a wreath on the topmost point of a new building. (The tradition continues today in many countries, where even glass and metal skyscrapers are "topped out" with a signed beam, a tree or a flag.)

Shawn translated Ibsen's play and wrote the screenplay and script for the earlier stage production, on which Shawn and Gregory collaborated. The play was rehearsed and performed over a 14 year period before Demme came on as director to produce the new film version. The team of Declan Quinn as director of photography and Tim Squyres as editor is responsible for the look of the film, its claustrophobic interiors and dreamlike exteriors.

Also see Steve Prokopy's review of A Master Builder in Gapers Block.

A Master Builder is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday.


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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

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By Steve Prokopy

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